I have been wanting to write a follow up to my 2016 post on creating inclusive work environments for transgender, and expand the conversation to supporting gender non-binary employees as well. Statistically, things have evolved. According to marketwatch.com, in 2018 “a record 459 major employers now have inclusion guidelines for employees who are transitioning—compared to 90 in 2008.” Even pop culture has evolved, with television drama series ‘Billions’ giving viewers exposure to the powerhouse non-binary character, Taylor Mason.
While I would consider all of this progress, our work is far from over when it comes to creating inclusive workplaces. For years, we hyper-focused on “the bathroom issue.” While restroom privacy is important (and can be a challenge in tight Manhattan office space), this topic is about way more than the facilities. We are really talking about creating an environment where people can be their true, authentic selves at work.
Having advised dozens of organizations over the past decade on transgender inclusion, I have one piece of advice—be proactive with your transgender policies and inclusion plans. More specifically, I recommend organizations consider the following:
As we work to welcome Gen Z into the labor force, I recommend companies proactively address gender identity inclusion. Approximately 1.4 million Americans, including 2% of high school students, identifying as transgender. With those numbers, most major employers should expect the needs of people identifying as transgender or non-binary to be part of their employee profile if it is not already. While it is important to remain flexible, I recommend all employers update their policies, benefits, and culture with transgender employees in mind. Once an organization finds itself in reactive-mode, they are likely facing a damaging situation that could have been avoided, including emotional stress, a tarnished brand, or even a lawsuit.
First, let’s address the difference between a transgender and a gender non-binary individual. A non-binary or non-conforming gender identity can often mistakenly be labeled as transgender. While a gender non-binary or nonconforming individual does not identify with their assigned gender at birth, they do not identify with the opposite gender the way a transgender individual does.
I work with many leaders who are allies of the LGBTQ community, but behind closed doors, they will admit that even they sometimes struggle to stay up to speed as gender identity continues to evolve. For example, an employee shared that they are “a straight, non-binary individual, who is not planning on transitioning.” This can all be very confusing for people who don’t have any direct experience with the LGBTQ world. In this case, the statement referenced the person’s gender identity (non-binary), their sexual orientation (straight) and their thoughts about gender transition. I always recommend politely asking an employee for clarification if a term is used that you are not familiar with. It is a great first step in understanding how they want to manage their gender identity at work. As well, the Human Rights Campaign offers a glossary of terms to aid in understanding.
Beyond the bathroom.
While “the bathroom thing” became the defining political issue of the transgender community issue in 2016, the companies that are creating winning cultures get beyond the bathroom. The most important thing you can do for an employee is to find out what they need to be themselves at work. Some employees may have already transitioned, others might be going through a medical transition, and some will never transition. Medical transition, however, does not change a person’s gender identity. It is important to acknowledge that while some transgender individuals will go down this route, all transgender individuals will experience some kind of social transition. Honest dialogue is the best way to learn about your employees’ needs and help to clear a path that makes it possible for everyone to do their best work.
Making an effort to learn people’s pronoun preferences is an easy and visible way to make transgender and non-binary employees more comfortable and make it clear to all employees that we should be aware of people’s preferences. Transgender people prefer the use of pronouns matching their gender identity, most often he/him/his or she/her/hers, rather than the pronouns associated with their assigned gender at birth. Non-binary individuals usually use they/them/their pronouns.
Instead of assuming based on a person’s appearance, some companies are adding pronoun preferences to their email signature, taking the awkwardness out of asking. However, I do recommend people find ways to casually weave in the pronoun question, rather than ignoring or assuming. For example, “can you remind me which pronouns you like for yourself?” You will likely make transgender employees more comfortable with their identity and the workplace, while also modeling this for other employees. It is important to remember that not all non-binary people identify as transgender and not all transgender people identify as non-binary. In the end, it’s important to be respectful of each person’s identity and understand that one’s gender does not define their personality, nor should it impact how you treat that person in the workplace.
A team in transition.
I like to remind companies that when you have an employee who identifies as transgender and may be going through a transition, you should be cognizant of all of the people in this employee’s orbit. Your primary focus should be making sure the transitioning employee is comfortable but don’t forget to consider the rest of the team. Most of the time I hear that colleagues are nothing but supportive. However, depending on a person’s background, culture, and family of origin, some people just may not be comfortable. I worked recently with an executive that had a person on his team going through a transition and it seemed to be going smoothly. For good measure, he checked in with the employee’s direct supervisor who seemed relieved to discuss it. She revealed that she wanted to be supportive, but she was really outside of her comfort zone and needed some help. While this was probably hard to admit, it is impossible to move forward without this level of honesty and willingness to learn.
Despite some recent progress, the best organizations are constantly improving and refining their cultures in support of inclusion. If you are ready to proactively prepare for transgender inclusion, we would love to speak with you.